That was the year that was

I still vaguely recall my mother’s 40th birthday back in 1987; that was the golden era of the catchphrase “life begins at 40!”, and I heard it repeated many times that year in many tonal variations, from sincere statement of aspiration to bitter statement of crushed hope.

I turned forty this year. And I guess a new life has indeed begun — though an old life had to end first, and that transition nearly destroyed me, quite literally. I’ve endured bouts of deep depression since I was a teenager, but the trough of despond I fell into last winter was deeper and darker than any of them. Some of the triggers were contextual — I frankly think that if this year hasn’t been at least moderately miserable, then you really haven’t been paying attention — but they were amplified by the stress of my final year of my PhD, and by my dwindling financial resources. I wouldn’t say I was suicidal, but I had genuinely lost sight of the point of being alive, of taking care of myself. I didn’t want to die, but I felt like I wanted to sleep — not just to sleep late but sleep for years, to sleep like the princess in a fairytale, deep in a thicket of thorns, far away from everyone and everything.

It was bad enough that I actually went and got some professional help. I’m not going to belabour this point, but still: if you find yourself in an emotional pit that you can’t climb out of, try to let yourself seek out some help. It’s not easy, I know: one of the strongest delusions of depression is the one that tells you that you don’t deserve any help (because you’re just being weak and useless, and should just pull your own shit together and get your adult on), that the help probably won’t help anyway, that you’ll just be wasting someone’s precious time when they could be helping someone who really deserved and needed it. (Even the slightest awareness of the massive strain on underfunded mental health services can become an excuse for not accessing such; it certainly was for me.)

So, look — I’m not the boss of anyone, and my own track record on this stuff is not great, so I’m not gonna stand too long on this soapbox, here. But if you ever find yourself feeling like that, consider trying to get some help, and try to see it through to the end. With hindsight, the counselling I had back in the summer was incredibly valuable, but it was only over the last couple of sessions that the breakthrough was made. Prior to that, it felt to me like a waste of my time and my counsellor’s time. Seen from the vantage point of six months distance, however, it was anything but a waste. I don’t know that it saved my life, but I’m totally sure it saved what passes for my sanity.

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I defended my PhD thesis on 30th November 2017. The result was Major Corrections / No Reexamination (so, I have to submit an amended thesis, but I don’t have to defend it in another viva), but the majorness of the corrections is less about there being a lot of corrections to do, and more about how much time it’ll take me to get them done, given I’m also working full-time on a short contract with the Twenty65 project… and, of course, trying to apply for any suitable postdoc positions that I hear about, and trying to think about potential project pitches for fellowships, and and and.

So frankly I’m just as busy as I was six months ago, if not much more so… but it turns out that getting paid makes being busy a lot more bearable.

Major Corrections has a hint of stigma about it — and not just because it implies you didn’t do a very good job. What I’ve found enduringly difficult to deal with is the utter lack of any sense of closure: while you’re doing your PhD, the viva is very much framed as a transformative and transitional day in your life, the culmination of your epic journey… but for me it feels more like the doorway into a vestibule containing further hoops through which I am expected to jump.

I’m not being all tiny violin about it, to be clear; I know how much of a privilege it is to even get the chance to take a PhD, and I’m certainly not implying I’ve been unfairly punished by the process. But nonetheless, it’s frustrating to be told “OK, we think this is all very good, but we’d just like a bit more of it, please”. I want to get on with my life, get on with finding a job, reestablish my non-academic writing practice… but until I deliver the coup de grace, that’ll all have to take a back seat.

Selah — it is what it is, and the worst of it is over. Onwards.

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So another new year beckons, replete with tasks and possibilities… which is why I decided to have a sensible, quiet end-of-the-year lurking alone in my house, getting early nights and eating well, making lists and plans and strategies so as to able to thunder into 2018 with all cylinders firing and all guns blazing.

And so much for that — 2018’s first gift for me was some sort of viral lurgy, with the result that I spent most of yesterday shivering with a mild fever, and most of last night trying to sleep through mild but remarkably persistent hallucinations (many of which, presumably due to my reading his autobiography recently, featured Neil Young trying to explain how to pick the exact right chord for the bridge of a song; I say trying to explain, because today I find myself no wiser on such matters, despite his efforts). As such, I’m not exactly in the best headspace to be ploughing my way through an assortment of cover letters and application forms and abstracts…

… but hey, ain’t no one else gonna do ’em for me, right? So here’s to starting 2018 in as stubborn, hard-nosed and proactive a mood as is possible.

(Right after I’ve been to the corner shop to stock up on tissues and Beechams, anyway.)

2 thoughts on “That was the year that was”

  1. Love your writing, man. Of course, time parcelled into years is an arbitrary, psychosomatic invention, but fingers crossed for a great 2018 anyway. And best of with your PhD, too.

  2. Forty was a mind-f*ck for me. My Dad passed away on his 40th birthday so I’d always dreaded it. Woke up the next morning and literally the first thing I thought was “well, that’s over”. Now I’m sliding into 60 this year and sort of looking forward to it. You probably have some of your most interesting experiences ahead. Carl Jung wouldn’t accept patients before they were 40 because he didn’t think there was enough of a personality to work with.
    Good luck.

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